How Billie Jean King Fought for Women’s Equality in Sports

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Feminist Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King is an advocate for gender equality in sports. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America - Billie Jean King, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55929186.

There are many ways in which Billie Jean King could be seen as inspiring. She was one of the first athletes to be openly gay, as well as a leading female tennis player. This spotlight focuses on how she fought for equality in women’s sports, including the battle of the sexes match.

Billie Jean King & the Battle of the Sexes

It was the “Battle of the Sexes” match of 1973 that is one of the most notable moments of Billie Jean King’s sports career. After 55-year-old tennis star Bobby Riggs said that he was better than any female tennis player, Riggs called for a game against King. The two then played a match in Houston on September 20th that drew a lot of attention. The nationally televised game got close to 50 million viewers and ended in three sets. In the first set, Riggs was leading. Then King took the lead with three sets, one after the other; the scores were 6-4, 6-3, and 6-3. Yes, in slightly over two hours Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs. She got the $100,000 USD prize.

Battle of the Sexes in 1973.
A 1973 photo of King and Riggs, who would play in what is today called the “Battle of the Sexes” match. Photo by Unknown – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69297511.
Since then, the Battle of the Sexes has been made into a movie starring Emma Stone as King and Steve Carrell as Riggs. As a feminist, I see the Battle of the Sexes match as a win for female tennis. Bobby Riggs had essentially said female players were inferior to males on the tennis court. King showed otherwise. On a symbolic level, feminism triumphed against male chauvinism.

So, it was about more than just the $100,000 win for Billie Jean King or potential damage to her career if she had lost. I must point out though that the match wasn’t balanced, for a few reasons:

  • Billie Jean King was 29 at the time, roughly half of Riggs’ age, and
  • King was at the height of her career. She already had 10 Grand Slam singles titles

Unequal Pay in Tennis: How Did Billie Jean King Respond?

Pay disparity in tennis was a reality for Billie Jean King. When she won Wimbledon in 1968 (for the third time!), she received £750, while her male equivalent got £2,000. In 1970, she took the Italian Open title and earned significantly less than the male champion Ilie Nastase. A sizable difference in pay! Not only that, but women weren’t always even invited to play in competitions.

Feeling dissatisfaction at the disparity in earnings between genders, King threatened not to play at the 1973 U.S. Open if there was not equal pay for men and women. She created a rebel tour with World Tennis magazine’s founder Glady Heldman that was exclusively for women. And as a symbolic gesture, the nine women who joined the tour each received $1 as payment. It was all about not being discriminated against as women from playing tennis and also the gender disparity.

Then, in June of 1973, she founded and became the first President of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). The same year, the U.S. Open offered equal prize money for men and women. I believe that King’s establishment of the WTA was a big reason for that equal payment between genders. Given King was the U.S. Open defending champion, she held a lot of power. As a result, the U.S. Open of 1973 awarded $25,000 USD to both the male and female champions. It was the first Grand Slam event to give men women the same prize amount.

Of course, this event wasn’t the end of sexism. It was that same year that Riggs challenged the U.S. Open Winner Margaret Court to play a match, saying he could beat her even as a middle-aged man. He did win and then challenged King to what later became known as the Battle of the Sexes (as described above).

Feminist Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King is an advocate for gender equality in sports. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America – Billie Jean King, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55929186.

Is Tennis Today Gender-Equal?

Today most people see tennis as a gender-equal sport when it comes to pay. But as the New York Times explained in 2016, the equal prize earnings are only true to Grand Slam tournaments and some other tennis events, not for every tennis match. And sexism is still a reality, as shown by BNP Paribas Open’s Raymond Moore (the then tournament director) saying that WTA players were riding men’s coattails. While the New York Times writes that pay between male and female tennis players is closer than in other major sports, the reality is that there is still not equal pay between genders. The Times estimates that women earn about 80 cents for every dollar that men earn.

But, of course, it’s about more than the money. The Battle of the Sexes match was proof of this statement. Instead, the point is that women deserve to earn as much as men for their efforts, whether it be in tennis or otherwise. While there is still a ways to go when it comes to sports, and gender equality – as well as gender parity in other workplaces – Billie Jean King has helped progress the feminist movement.

22 COMMENTS

  1. Tennis is maybe going the other way, in grand slams women are paid equally for potentially less work (assuming a men’s match goes to longer than three sets). The debate seems to be moving towards asking if men playing are too much, not women, not playing enough. parity is great if anybody is doing the same, to cut men’s sets will be detremental to that game, not only for the excitement but also the sponsors and therefore the money earned through time played.

    King spoke about viewewrs wanting are men playing too much or should women just play longer…do the public want more women’s tennis, on the statistics men’s matches are more popular,

    disengenuous

  2. Sorry, that randomly posted before I had finished typing, my fingers are fat. To finish my point, King said viewers want quality, not quantity in the women’s game, which is fair enough but men’s tennis benefits from longer matches so if men played less there would be less quality and less viewers. Entertainment should be paid by quality regardless of sex, colour, and so forth, and from the viewing figures of Tennis the public overwhelmingly prefers men’s tennis.

    Sorry if this comment isn’t coherent, just wanted to get it up after the last one accidentally posted, halfway through drafting.

  3. Ah happy memories! Who was it who said something like, “of course I’m a feminist, I am a woman “? I remember loving watching Billie Jean and just being abso enthralled. She is an amazing and phenomenal woman. Listen to her roar!

  4. I love this! I knew about her but not what she did, surprisingly, so it was great to be enlightened. I love that she was such a badass woman. Also, I love tennis as a sport, so the enjoyment of reading about this was doubled. Thanks for sharing!

  5. This is a great post. I hear what the chaps are saying, but if we start picking apart the contribution made from either sex, are we not losing sight of the point? Either sex has a contribution to make, based on their fundamental way of being. So, we need to celebrate the differences, because both have merit, whilst valuing the contributions equally, don’t we? Christy my lovely, I have researched Patreon and made some discoveries. Please feel free to email me, if you wish, and I can share them with you. ‘jslifetherapy@gmail.com’. Hugs and much <3 xXx

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